A March 12, 2020, letter from the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. Screengrab

Orthodox rabbis in Bergen County, NJ, cancel all synagogue services, gatherings

(RNS) — Orthodox Jewish rabbis in Bergen County, New Jersey, have ordered the cancellation of all communal events, including prayer services and public celebrations, as part of a wide-ranging effort to stem the coronavirus.

The decision by the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which represents more than two dozen synagogues, also stipulated that Orthodox schools remain closed and that kosher restaurants under the group’s jurisdiction serve only takeout meals. Only the ritual bath, known as the “mikvah,” may remain open.

“We must all try our best to STAY HOME with only our immediate family for now and to avoid unnecessary contact with others, and particularly with substantial groups,” read the RCBC directive issued Thursday (March 12).

Leaders of the RCBC said they met with representatives of local government, including the Teaneck Department of Health and doctors from three local hospitals.

“The message from the healthcare providers was clear,” the letter said. “They need our help to slow the spread of the disease before their resources are overwhelmed.”

There were 23 cases of the new coronavirus in New Jersey as of Thursday morning. A 69-year-old man died, 20 people were hospitalized and two remain in self-isolation, according to news accounts.

Bergen County is among the 20 largest Jewish communities in the United States, with over 185 known Jewish organizations. Over the years it has attracted a sizable Orthodox community, especially Hasidic Jews.

The county has close to 1 million residents and, according to a spokesperson for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, an estimated 100,000 Jewish residents.

The directive does not apply to Conservative or Reform Jews, who make up the majority of the county’s Jews.

In neighboring New York state, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo mandated a one-mile containment zone in New Rochelle after the Young Israel of New Rochelle, an Orthodox synagogue, became the epicenter for infections. On Thursday, Cuomo declared a state of emergency in New York City.

It began when Lawrence Garbuz, a lawyer, attended a bat mitzvah and a funeral in February at Young Israel, and was later diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. He is thought to have potentially exposed hundreds of congregants to the virus.

New Rochelle is in New York state’s Westchester County.

The virus has already squelched community gatherings for Purim, a joyous Jewish holiday that fell on Monday and Tuesday this week.

Many other Jewish communities are moving to online services.

The Conference of Jewish Republicans has been canceled. It had previously vowed to go forward in Las Vegas with President Donald Trump appearing as the keynote speaker.

At least six people who attended last week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee gathering in Washington, D.C., have tested positive for the coronavirus. The AIPAC conference typically draws an estimated 18,000 people.